Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Review: Present Perfect by Gregory A. Boyd

NOTE: a copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher for review purposes.

This book by Dr Greg A. Boyd, Pastor of an Evangelical church in Minnesota, promises to help the reader experience "true spiritual formation" by "inviting God's Presence" in one's life.

And yet the author openly admits that he hasn't really experienced this transformation:

"Brother Lawrence, Frank Laubach and Jean de Caussade each speak of experiencing a transformation after which “practicing the presence of God” was as natural to them as breathing. I thought I was getting close to this sort of breakthrough last year when I was writing a book on this discipline (called Present Perfect) but I now suspect this was simply because my mind tends to be totally occupied with whatever I happen to be writing about at the time. This year I’m back to being pretty much the same old atheistic-minded Greg."

Although Greg attended a Catholic church for several years, it was because of his stepmother whom he describes as abusive, and when she left, he and his father both became atheists. The following is from an interview with Greg:

"My mom died before I was 3. My father remarried rather quickly, mostly out of a desperate need for someone to care for his four kids. If there are marriages made in heaven, this one was made in the other place. There was almost non-stop warfare in my home growing up. On top of this, my stepmother was physically abusive. The day my parents divorced and the family split up when I was 13 was quite honestly one of my happiest memories I have growing up. Though we had been attending a Catholic church up to this point, as soon as my stepmother and her two kids moved out, my father and I declared ourselves to be atheists."

After being atheist for 4 years and getting into drugs, Greg said he found the Lord.

He went to school for theology and has an impressive set of credentials including a M.Div from Yale Divinity School and a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary. Dr Greg has also published 18 books and is a speaker on the international scene.

About 20 years ago, Greg encountered the writings of Catholic monk, Brother Lawrence, "THE PRACTICE OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD". He also read a couple of other authors on similar subjects: Jean Pierre de Caussade who was apparently a contemporary of Brother Lawrence and Frank Laubach.

Greg was intrigued and began to find a way to put what he had read about, into practice. And "Present Perfect" details his own way of striving to be aware of God in his own life.

One charming thing about "Present Perfect" is that Greg is very honest about his own struggles. In one place he writes:

"I often feel as if I'm on a train that's constantly picking up speed as it races toward a brick wall. I have no idea when I'll crash, but I know I won't survive. Each passing moment takes me closer to this inevitability at an ever increasing speed. I'm dying." (P 63)

But then adds that

"The fear is not just that we're going to die. The fear is that we'll never really live." P 64

Quite a bit into this book, I realized that Greg's beliefs are very earth centered. He did state that he believes what Catholics call "Heaven" will be here on earth. I wondered how he dealt with the words of Jesus about His Kingdom being "not of this world".

My sense is that Greg with his struggles in being aware of God, may be speaking from an agnostic point of view. (He quipped to CNN that when one "Googles" his name, the word "heretic" comes up quite often!)

That being said, there is much merit in a person who has not received the "gift of faith", in working so diligently to approach God.

One of many intriguing things about "Present Perfect" is that it offers many practical ways of becoming more aware of God's presence that all of us can use in our own lives. These methods use both psychological tools like what Weight Watchers refer to as "anchors" (innocuous gestures or items which remind of what we want to be reminded of) and "positive self talk" or "affirmations" and, imagery.

Although Catholic spirituality should center around powerful channels of grace like the Holy Mass, the Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy as well as ejaculatory prayer as Robert Spitzer, S.J. suggests - short prayers like "God help me" and "Holy Spirit, push away the darkness", we still can benefit a lot by supplementing these with many of Pastor Greg's suggestions in "Present Perfect".

Pastor Greg tells us to not be bothered by something we did for God imperfectly advising us to just "let it go". However, I find it the best for me in such situations to pray "God, please fix it!" Pastor Greg does offer an interesting method of letting things go, using an anchor (I won't tell you about it - you'll need to read the book, but I'm planning to try it myself!). :)

I could relate to a lot of what Greg wrote about. For example, have we all not been here:

"I realized that my trivial, self-centered mental chatter about the past and future - like a dark cloud blocking the sun - had kept me from seeing the Glory of God that surrounded me every second of every day."

I found many of Pastor Greg's observations to be rather profound - like how the world tends to program us and many of us live as "semi conscious slaves" as in "The Matrix".

And things which intrigued me such as his reporting that the core values of most Christians do not much differ from those of pagans. (I think this may not be true of Catholics and possibly members of other mainstream churches like Lutheran or Southern Baptist though). He also quoted a statistic about only 4 percent of those who come up for an altar call and "accept the Lord", continuing in the Christian walk. I looked for a cite for this which was not provided and again I wonder which congregations Pastor Greg was referring to. I suspect not Catholic and this possibly illustrates that putting people through a rigorous course in religion before they make the commitment such as our RCIA program, might be a wise idea.

I disagree with Pastor Greg about the earth based Heaven (probably referring to a literal interpretation of Revelations but ignoring many other passages which suggest something different).

Greg also seems in places, a bit anti religion, making a sharp distinction between religion and spiritual walk, a definition which is loved by the world but is erroneous in my POV. Greg writes in a blog:

"the religion of Christendom dies a slow death (praise God!)"

In this, he ignores that Jesus founded a church (REF Matt 16:14FF) with a leader (and I even felt that when I was a Protestant reading the KJV).

Truth is, Greg quotes very little scripture in the book although he does quote Brother Lawrence and mostly the non Catholic, Frank Laubach. I missed there not being more Scripture because in places, things he writes, seem to contradict Biblical teachings.

Would I recommend "Present Perfect"? I believe I would, with the caution that you keep in mind that the writer may be writing from an agnostic POV. That being said, the book is profound and clever and very interesting reading and I personally, found it helpful to me. I think anyone reading it, may discover not only, how to pray better but also how to live life more fully.

You can obtain a copy of "PRESENT PERFECT" on Pastor Greg's website or on Amazon.


TheDen said...


Interesting post. I just watched Boyd's discussion on Purgatory and wanted to find out more about him.

His explanation was the the best I've heard of Purgatory ever. Regarding Heaven here on earth, I believe that's CAN be a valid Catholic teaching although it's a stretch. I don't think it necessarily conflicts with Catholic teaching. Heaven can be defined as anywhere where God is. Since He is everywhere, heaven is by extension everywhere.

When we die, we are either with God or without Him. If we are with Him, then we are in heaven, if we are without Him, then we are not ie we are in Hell.

Regarding heaven being not of this world, I think that can be interpreted as not being influenced by this world ie not being worldy or into earthly things. Not necessarily that it's in space or not on earth.

Anyhow, nonetheless, good review.

Ben said...


I respect the views expressed in this review and having read brother lawrence and other spiritual tomes I will be looking forward to reading this book. However, I would just like to point out that Greg Boyd is most definitely not an 'agnostic'. He is definitely a deep thinker and some of his musings are a little 'out there' but if you read his excellent book 'letters from a sceptic' or watch his sermons on youtube etc. he is a very passionate believer.

Jesus talked of the kingdom being 'at hand' and in the future. The danger of always looking to heaven is that we can forget that the kingdom is 'at hand' now - meaning we need to be Jesus' hands, feet, mouth etc, in the world now through the Holy Spirit. This is one of Greg Boyd's big agendas - that our life now should be kingdom centred.

I believe heaven will be a continuation of our relationship with God now and who knows what form that may take after we die?

Thanks for the review and making me think on a Friday night...

Jake said...

I'm almost positive that Boyd's interpretation, and this is what I think is most natural too, of the passage when Jesus says that His kingdom is not of this world, is that Jesus' *ways* or the power that He draws from is not of this world. The way of the world is violence and control, whereas the way of Jesus is nonviolent love.

Dan Brouk said...

I'm late to the party, but do a little research. Greg Boyd is not an agnostic.

Sue Joan said...

Thanks for comments - to explain I am using the word "Agnostic" in a bit different manner and I should have explained it better (my definition). I feel there are Christian agnostics (not sure if God exists but thinks God might exist) and atheist agnostics (not sure if God exists but thinks perhaps God does not exist). The cadre of believers is actually a very small group - those who are sure God exists. Not sure I'm explaining this right even now - anyway, your points are well taken... in our current nomenclature, Pastor Boyd would be considered a believer.